Space Hulk: Vengeance is based off of the Warhammer 40K tabletop games created by Games Workshop. I must admit that I am not familiar with them, so I'm approaching this review from a strictly video game standpoint. The game doesn't appear to be using any pen-and-paper or RPG rules anyway, so you can consider this game "inspired by," but not a replication of, the tabletop experience.
Vengeance centers around two warring factions. You play as fanatically religious marine-monks who pilot walking suits of armor called Terminators. They use pretty common weapons, so controlling them should be familiar to you. You fight a group of purple, shark-looking aliens called Genestealers. They have multiple arms, making them vicious in melee combat, but sport no ranged attacks. They do have numbers in their favor, and can swarm from multiple directions, or send relentless streams of foes down a hallway after you. A few missions will pit you against other enemy types, like "hybrids" that look like two-armed Genestealers with guns, but most of the time its your long-range Marines against the short-range Stealers.
This is the basic point of the game, and what the entire strategy is based on. One marine can splatter Stealer after Stealer, as long as he has some distance to work with. On the other hand, though marines have some basic hand-to-hand capabilities, they will usually die if any alien gets too close. The maps throughout the game are made up entirely of long passages and 90-degree angles, so you have to figure out how to best place your marines to lay fire down key hallways and access points, or seal doors to keep the aliens out.
Genestealers "spawn" from locked doors marked in red on your map. These presumably are coming from other areas of the ship, but in practical terms, it means that you will have a few key zones that your enemies are coming from. They literally pour out of these access points, and can overwhelm your forces in a matter of seconds, if you haven't set up to contain them. Once you've secured an entry area, mostly by putting marines at the end of any passages leading into it, you can send the rest of your squad to complete your mission. These range from having your one flamethrower marine burn specific rooms, to picking up bombs and taking them to specific areas, to simply digging in and surviving for a specified amount of time. There's a lot of variety here, and though some missions are certainly more difficult than others, all are generally enjoyable.
Controlling your marines is possible through a smart interface and some well-designed AI. By pressing the tab key, you bring up an overhead map showing the placement of your marines, objectives, enemy spawn points, and any enemies in the area. You have a set amount of "freeze time" while this map is open, allowing you to cycle through marines and issue waypoints or orders. This time regenerates when the map is closed, or you can continue giving orders in real-time if you run out.
When you're not in the map, you're looking through the eyes of the last marine you selected. If you gave him orders, you can sit back and watch him carry them out, or you can override those orders and control him yourself. This allows you to personally wax some Stealers, or take over a key marine's task, if the job is too complicated to leave to the AI. As said before, marines are best used at the end of a long corridor, with his flanks secured. However, when it comes time to move down that hallway into a new position, or if aliens are coming from multiple directions, you will almost certainly be able to do a better job yourself.
The AI can accept a number of useful commands and carry them out competently. They can advance to up to four waypoints, or retreat backwards while firing. They can be ordered to open or lock doors, pick up and drop objects, or fire into a specific room - such as when you need to burn a critical area. You can have them watch a certain direction, or cover another marine by following him. They will automatically shoot at the nearest enemy as they move, and automatically engage in hand-to-hand combat, though they're not as good at it as you can be. Every one of these orders, and their ability to follow them to the letter, makes the game work quite well. Their reactions aren't that fast though, which is why you'll want to control them directly for difficult tasks.
Vengeance is a great looking game, with moody environments and nice detail and animation on the characters. The game looks the best when you're locked in close combat with a Stealer, and the animation switches to a highly detailed 2-D Stealer up in your face. The clear animations here allow you to see what kind of attack the Stealer is planning, and block accordingly, almost like Tyson's Punchout. Otherwise you'll be seeing a lot of gloomy corridors get splattered with alien blood and limbs, especially if you've set up a strong position. You do not have a great field of vision, and can only see a short distance in front of you before everything tapers into darkness. It doesn't affect the gameplay though - because of the long corridors you can fire blind and still hit bad guys, and actually works well for the atmosphere to see shapes of Stealers shuffling ahead in the darkness. The game's audio helps here as well, with squeals of nearby Stealers, beefy weapon effects, and helpful vocal reports from your marines.
The game controls well, except in two areas. One is hand-to-hand combat. It's not fair to say that fighting a Stealer is more difficult than it should be, because the current setting is probably just about right, though it is certainly more difficult that you expect it to be. A lot of patience and flawless timing is required to make a successful attack or block, and sometimes the keys can be sluggish to respond. You have to factor that into your timing.
The other area is in giving commands to your marines. The original Space Hulk had four screens showing the cameras from multiple marines at the same time. It was complicated, but worked reasonably well. Vengeance has only one screen for the current marine you are watching or controlling. Freeze-time, which regenerates rather quickly, helps offset the difficulty of trying to keep up with the every individual member of squads of marines, while looking through the eyes of only one. However, it is still difficult to know what kind of trouble every marine is encountering, especially in the larger maps. Expect to be heading back to the tactical screen often.
Vengeance isn't an easy game, nor one that should be taken lightly. It is, however, challenging enough for serious strategists, and rewarding enough to see to completion.
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